BOOK REVIEW: AIRPORTNESS, BY CHRISTOPHER SCHABERG (2017)

Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 14.20.34Airportness is the combination of dread and melancholia that grips my mind and belly on the day before a flight, the quiet tension that accompanies me all the way to the airport on the day of the trip, the relief of passing security, the humbling sense of wonder I feel when I realise just how many people, with their attendant stories, are travelling on the same day as me, the fear and thrill of flying, the disorienting and weirdly discomforting moment of arrival. It’s also the horror stories I share with my friends about that time I was stuck indefinitely at San Francisco Airport, the mere action of peering up at the sky when an airplane passes overhead, and the environmental panic that clutches my lizard brain whenever I see something in the news about that third Heathrow runway. Airportness is, basically, any time you experience or even just think about airports and airplanes. And, of course, it’s also the title of Christopher Schaberg’s new book, a series of mini-essays looking at every little thing that contributes to airportness, from boarding passes to in-flight entertainment to airport-related LEGO sets.

Schaberg appears to be in a constant state of airportness. Give him anything–a film, a book, a music video–and he’ll tell you what that thing says about airports and/or airplanes. The Force Awakens? Every time the Millennium Falcon struggles to lift off and scrapes its undercarriage on the ground, the film stimulates our horror/fascination for air travel disasters. Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere? It only features flight once, sort of, when the characters are shown arriving LAX and then, immediately afterwards, leaving Milan Malpensa–and the very fact that the flight itself is not shown reflects how we barely even notice the experience anymore. David Bowie’s Blackstar video? Bowie’s ambivalence about space travel reflects the way many feel about flight in general: “we still desire the uplift of flight, while yet knowing its banality, and bracing for its ever-increasing indignities.”

Inhabiting Schaberg’s mind was the highlight of the book for me. The man is positively obsessed. He even admits that a review of one of his previous airport-related books says that Schaberg might come across as “a touch insane”. But to be so compelled by something that so many despise or find incredibly tedious–that’s inspiring. And I, too, like to find connections between apparently unrelated things, even in this blog–be it amateur circus classes and Han Kang’s harrowing novel about political violence in 1980s South Korea, Human Acts, or entomological horrors and Eleanor Wasserberg’s gothic coming of age tale Foxlowe. Holden Caulfield once said, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up the phone whenever you felt like it.” I felt something similar with Airportness–I bet Schaberg would be an interesting person to hang out with.

That said–my feelings for this book as a book are lukewarm. I often found myself wishing that it could be tweaked to become something different but related. Perhaps an anthropological study of airport work, or a nuts-and-bolts guide to everything that goes on in an airport, complete with diagrams. Maybe this is not entirely fair. But I went into this book hoping I’d learn something new about airports or flying, and that didn’t happen. Schaberg did not delve deeply enough in almost any of the things he discusses to make me revise my own thoughts on the subject. Sure, we eat a lot of unhealthy snacks at airplanes, and it would be nicer if we could eat fresh fruit instead. Sure, there is something strangely comforting about airplane toilets. Sure, the act of takeoff is almost miraculous, and yet most people stop marvelling at it after the first few times. It’s entirely possible he goes a bit deeper in his other two books, The Textual Life of Airports and The End of Airports, which I haven’t read, and that he was aiming for something more breezy and fun with this one, something that is only a few steps removed from an observational comedy routine, and that can be easily consumed during a two-three hour flight without expending too much mental energy.

It should also be said that these are, perhaps inevitably, a cis white man’s subjective thoughts and experiences, with inevitable blind spots. I say this as a blind-spotted cis white man myself. There is plenty of politics in Airportness–Schaberg often brings up the 45th president, and keeps coming back to the way airlines and airports deal with class in their advertising and in-flight services. But, for such a wide-ranging book, I found it a little surprising that a few lines weren’t spared for racial-religious profiling at security checkpoints or passport control, barring a few blink-and-you’ll-miss references here and there. And, as interesting as Schaberg’s point may be that, with all the brouhaha over trans people’s use of public toilets, absolutely anyone can use the toilets on an airplane, I find Schaberg’s statement that gender generally doesn’t matter on flights a tad suspect, coming from a cis man.

There are, however, a few things that I will take from this book. One is the word airportness–it’s a little cumbersome and fake-sounding, but using it as a label for the melancholic dread I always feel the day before a flight might rob it of some of its power. Then there’s “gate lice”, Schaberg’s term for the people who cluster around the gate way before boarding, making you feel jittery and anxious, until, inevitably, you end up joining them. “Gate lice” is somewhat offensive, but it’s also true that I often become one of them myself at some point or other, and this revelation might make me empathise more with them. Finally, I found Schaberg’s musings on the term “bird strike” fairly interesting–it is funny that this is the term we use to describe a massive piece of machinery colliding against an animal who is actually meant to be in the sky.

Overall, then–after reading this book, the way I experience or think about airports and flying will largely stay the same. Which is a shame. However, I did enjoy spending time inside Schaberg’s weird mind, and the book is a nice reminder that, no matter how soul-destroying something might be (and airports are pretty soul-destroying), there will always be someone who, instead, finds that something endlessly compelling.

Airportness is out on July 13, 2017. I received a free ebook copy from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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